This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Agony Booth review: Star Trek: The Next Generation's third season

My newest Agony Booth article looks at Star Trek: The Next Generation's third season, which set the course (if you'll pardon the pun) for not only that series, but the subsequent three Trek shows as well.
As this is Star Trek’s golden anniversary year, and with the pending release of Star Trek: Beyond, I’ve decided to look at the effect of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s third season, which many feel had an impact not only on TNG but the subsequent Star Trek shows as well.

TNG’s first season is often regarded as the series’ worst, and indeed, a number of those early episodes don’t do anything the original Star Trek didn’t do better. But even then, elements of the greatness to come were present. If I had to pick my favorite episode from TNG’s first year, it would be a tie between “Heart of Glory” and “Conspiracy”.

The former was not only the first of what became a very long line of Worf/Klingon episodes for both TNG and Deep Space Nine, but it also allowed us a wonderful first glimpse into Worf’s character. “Conspiracy” was, intentionally or not, a nice (and even gory) homage to the 1956 classic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Ironically, we never saw a sequel to this story, even though the ending clearly left the door open for one.

TNG’s second season, likewise, gave us gems such as “The Measure of a Man”, “Contagion”, and of course, introduced us to the Borg with “Q Who”. It’s almost a miracle that the series was able to put out any good stuff during these two years when you consider the behind the scenes turmoil that was going on. This turmoil entailed not only the departures of Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar) and Gates McFadden (Beverly Crusher), but also a writing staff that was basically a revolving door.

The third year of the series, however, provided a welcome respite from the disappointment of that summer’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and also saw the start of a stable crew being put in place on both sides of the camera. The man who got the most credit for giving TNG this second wind is the late, great Michael Piller. He began his career as a journalist before selling scripts to series such as Cagney & Lacey and Simon & Simon. Piller became a producer on the latter show, before being offered a chance to work on TNG. Piller wasn’t familiar with Star Trek, so he basically looked at what worked in TNG’s earlier seasons (such as Q and the Borg) and kept those elements in place, while also making TNG more of an ensemble series. This included McFadden returning as Crusher.

One of his masterstrokes during this season was the great way in which he brought back Tasha Yar. Crosby was dissatisfied with how her character was being utilized and asked to be released from the show before the end of TNG’s first season. But Piller basically took the lemon of the episode in which Yar was killed off, “Skin of Evil”, and turned it into the lemonade that was “Yesterday’s Enterprise”.

One of the best parts of that episode was that, even though much of the action takes place in an alternate reality, the aftereffects of the story would come back to haunt Picard and his crew in the show’s later seasons. This episode would also be tied in with the show’s ongoing Worf/Klingon storyline, giving us more insight into that culture than Trek had previously shown.

Hence, the third season finale “The Best of Both Worlds” was not only a culmination of TNG’s third year; it was the culmination of what TNG had achieved by this point. One of my colleagues wrote an interesting two part article, “Should Picard have died in ‘Best of Both Worlds’?”, which asked how not only TNG but Star Trek altogether would have fared if Picard had died in that story. This also reinforced the fact that “The Best of Both Worlds” generated the biggest drama series buzz since “Who shot J.R.?” on Dallas. I’ll never forget the sight of my cousin Matt pounding the floor in frustration when Picard appeared as Locutus, and then the screen went black and the words “To Be Continued...” appeared at the end of this seminal episode.

All three of the subsequent Star Trek shows have attempted to duplicate the tension that “The Best of Both Worlds” created at least once. Indeed, in the beginning, fans of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise were often found saying to wait until the third season of each of those shows, because that’s when they would get good just like TNG did at that point. Alas, none of those three series managed to give us the same impact in their respective third seasons.

DS9’s second season ended promisingly with “The Jem’Hadar”, which introduced the Dominion (hinted at in previous episodes of the season). Naturally, this development was picked up in the show’s third season premiere “The Search”. Let’s just say that if “The Best of Both Worlds” was science fiction’s answer to “Who shot J.R.?”, then “The Search” was definitely the genre’s answer to “Bobby Ewing in the shower”. This is because Sisko and his crew attempt to have talks with the Dominion’s leaders, only to be ambushed and later informed that Starfleet is basically kissing the Dominion’s ass from now on. This prompts Sisko and company to collapse the wormhole in order to keep the Dominion from obtaining any more troops and supplies. Alas, the ending of the story reveals all of this as an illusion placed in the minds of the crew as part of the Dominion’s plan to see how they would react to such a scenario.

But like Dallas, DS9 managed to go on after this fiasco, which included a retooling in the fourth season, the same season in which Worf became a regular. Viewers did eventually get that Federation/Dominion conflict, but while it gave us gems such as “In the Pale Moonlight”, I’ve sometimes wondered if the series may have fared better if that war came sooner rather than later. I must also note that Piller, whose success with TNG had led to him being given the chance to develop DS9, left the show in the middle of the third season in order to focus more on the next Trek series Voyager.

I once noted that Voyager basically gave up on its premise in its second season and decided to just become a logic-free action show. Indeed, that show’s second season finale, “Basics”, finds the entire crew stranded on a barren, hostile planet by Klingon knockoffs the Kazon. Another of my colleagues cited the Voyager episode “Alliances” as the moment where both Voyager and the Star Trek franchise died. “Basics” essentially reinforced that notion by not having one single crew member confront Janeway during the entire episode, even though she lost crew members in prior dealings with the Kazon, and her unwillingness to do anything with them led to their exile.

Not surprisingly, the crew gets their ship back (with Janeway doing absolutely nothing to make that happen) and merrily resume their seven-year mission. The good news was that we were never bothered with the Kazon again after this. The bad news is that Voyager never took its premise of a ship stuck on the other side of the galaxy with limited manpower and resources seriously again. Nope, we just had to accept that the ship was always pristine and working perfectly with crewmembers that could be pulled out of the production team’s asses on a moment’s notice, despite the fact that there were no starbases around to supply the ship with this stuff.

The only time Voyager generated any positive buzz again was with the addition of Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine in its fourth season. That character, a Borg drone forced to rediscover her humanity after Janeway cuts her off from the collective, generated a lot of press. Sadly, this required the producers to drop the character of Kes (Jennifer Lien, who in recent years has had to contend with issues more serious than getting laid off, because of her numerous arrests). Garrett Wang’s Harry Kim was originally chosen to get the axe, but People magazine changed the producers’ minds when Wang made that magazine’s list of “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” for that year. I also suppose the producers didn’t want to get rid of Ethan Phillips’s Neelix, because they were in denial that Neelix was as hated as Jar Jar Binks (you have to love how both those characters were groomed to be as embraced as much as Spock and E.T., but in both cases, the opposite occurred).

Ironically, Piller left Voyager at the start of its third season because, among other things, he actually wanted to develop the Kazon storyline more (why, I’m not sure, given how lame they were). Sadly, his final contribution to the Star Trek franchise was the screenplay for Star Trek: Insurrection.

I must confess, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of Enterprise. But the fact that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga gave this show the same mentality as Voyager didn’t surprise me. The episodes of the show I did see reinforced that notion.

I suppose it would be too simplistic to state that Piller not being involved at all with Enterprise meant it had no chance of being good. But the fact that Voyager, somehow, got the same number of seasons as TNG and DS9 probably made the producers think that Enterprise also going the same purely action series, premise-be-damned route Voyager did would’ve assured paychecks for another seven years. Alas, Enterprise got the axe after just four seasons.

Maybe there is no single answer for why TNG’s third season became the magical, pivotal season of television that it did. But the creative ambition that came together in that year made it clear that Star Trek without Kirk and Spock was not the inconceivable thought it had been just a few years prior.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Blood Work (2002)

"I'm in this thing for the full ride!"
-Terry McCaleb.

For some reason, I predictability in movies for me can vary how I enjoy it. For instance, I pretty much knew how Scream 4 was going to turn out and didn't even both watching it until I wrote my recent article on that series.
This movie, though, I have been able to enjoy even though I figured out the mystery of the story at least half an hour before the protagonists did.
As an actor, nobody can do the 'loner who has been through a lot' persona the way Clint can, which is why he's as fun to watch as ever here. He plays FBI man Terry McCaleb, who is tracking down a serial killer when, following a foot chase through an alley, he suffers a heart attack before managing to shoot the killer (whose face is hidden at this point) in the back.

A while later, McCaleb, who lives on his boat, is undergoing routine heart surgery, as his attack required a heart transplant. He is soon contacted by Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesus). She asks him to find the person who killed her sister and McCaleb agrees after Graciella informs him that the heart he now has belonged to her sister.

With the help of his colleague/former flame Jaye Winston (Tina Lifford) and the reluctant assistnace of detectives Ronaldo Arrango (Paul Rodriguez) and John Waller (Dylan Walsh), McCaleb views footage of where the killer struck previously and interviews relatives of the previous victims.

Not surprisingly, this begins to tax his heart condition further, to the chagrin of his stern by well-meaning doctor Bonnie Fox (Anjelica Huston). However, even she agrees to assist McCaleb by helping him discover that the past victims were organ/blood donors and that the killer specifically targeted them because they had the same blood type as McCaleb, who was in need of a new heart that Graciella's sister ended up supplying him with.

Even when possible suspect Mikhail Bolotov (Igor Jijikine) is found dead with possessions of the victims on him, McCaleb isn't convinced.

Eventually, he realizes that his all-too-helpful neighbor Buddy Noone (Jeff Daniels) is the killer. I pretty much guessed that halfway through because Buddy seems all-to-eager to please once McCaleb asks him for transportation to various locations. Of course, at the same time, this revelation is reached, Buddy has kidnapped Graciella and her nephew. But, McCaleb forces him to take him to them even as Buddy taunts him about how McCaleb should be grateful that he basically saved his life, by killing other people.

The climatic confrontation can pretty much be guessed about by anyone who has seen past Eastwood thrillers. Fortunately, the cast makes up for the story's predictability by being fun to watch. Even the romance which develops between McCaleb and Graciella is fine because it is not set up the way movie romances are in so many other films.

No, Blood Work is not as sharp as, say, Play Misty for Me (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), Tightrope (1984) and In the Line of Fire (1993). But, I'm inclined to say it's as enjoyable to watch as those gems.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Agony Booth review: the Scream movies

My latest Agony Booth work looks at the Scream franchise, on the 20th anniversary of the first film.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the horror movie Scream. The movie’s success led to three sequels, and all four entries were directed by the late, great Wes Craven.

Ironically, there wasn’t much fanfare surrounding the first Scream upon its original release. This could be attributed to two factors: The slasher genre had all but died out by the end of the ‘80s, and Craven’s previous film Vampire in Brooklyn was understandably a box office bomb.

However, screenwriter Kevin Williamson had come up with a script, originally titled Scary Movie, which looked at slasher films through a lens of pop culture irreverence. He asked Craven to direct it, but the director refused until Drew Barrymore expressed interest in playing the lead role of Sidney Prescott.

As production began, Barrymore made a bold suggestion to Craven. She asked to play Casey Becker, the first victim who dies within the first ten minutes of the film. Barrymore’s argument was that if she died so soon after the movie began, audiences would be on edge for the rest of the picture, and Craven happily agreed.

Scream’s opening scene was key to the word-of-mouth that the picture would generate in the fall of 1996. Barrymore had already appeared both in beloved films like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and garbage like Poison Ivy. She had also endeared herself to the public with the way she conquered her childhood drug use. The opening scene where she’s taunted and murdered by an assailant donning a ghost face mask has deservedly become a classic.

Happily, the rest of the film is also exciting, thanks mainly to Neve Campbell, who ended up with the role of Sidney. While Barrymore’s opening scene got all the attention, Campbell ends up carrying the movie on her shoulders by playing an instantly likeable high schooler who has to contend with a serial killer on the anniversary of her mother’s death.

Her friends are Tatum (Rose McGowan), Tatum’s policeman brother Dewey (David Arquette), and film geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy). Unwanted help comes in the form of reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox).

As it turns out, the killer turns out to be not one, but two people: Sidney’s boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich, who previously worked with Campbell in The Craft), and his sidekick Stu (Matthew Lillard, who later became known for playing Shaggy). These two differentiate themselves from their cinematic brethren by making intentional references to past horror movies. I must also point out that they actually take more punches from their victims and potential victims than past cinematic killers.

There are some scenes in this movie I disliked. Perhaps the biggest one for me is the climax, where there’s a big party at Stu’s house and everyone but the main characters clears out. Why? Because these people get word that their principal (Henry Winkler) has become one of the victims, and they cheerfully rush off to see the body. This has to be the most clich├ęd “nobody around to help the select few against the killer” setup in any movie. I realize that it’s not unusual for high school students to dislike their principal, but this was the Fonz, dammit!

Still, the movie itself became a deserved success, and by law, that means sequels.

Alas, the Scream sequels proved to be nothing to write home about. I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect any horror series to give us as great a sequel as The Bride of Frankenstein or Aliens. However, Scream was referred to in some circles as the film that saved the horror genre. A bit of overpraise, perhaps, but this meant that there would be an audience for follow-ups.

However, like the Jurassic Park series, the Scream series basically became a descent in quality from one entry to the next.

Not surprisingly, Scream 2, which was released the very next year, has an emphasis on sequels. It’s also more tongue-in-cheek, in that the events of the first film have now been made into a movie called Stab. Probably the worst thing about Scream 2, other than the fact that the script was written and re-written throughout production, is that the main characters who survived the first film are actually dumber in the sequel. For example, at one point, Sidney and a friend of hers find themselves trapped in a police car being driven at breakneck speed by the killer. After the car crashes and knocks out the killer, the two girls manage to get out of the car and begin to dart off before Sidney stops and decides to go back and unmask the killer. Of course, when Sidney goes back, the killer is gone and then leaps out of nowhere to kill Sidney’s friend.

Also, Gale and Sidney were at odds in the first film because of a book the former wrote regarding the death of Sidney’s mom. One would think that surviving a killing spree together would make the two appreciate each other more. Scream 2, though, brings them back to square one in their relationship.

Craven and Williamson attempt to shake things up by killing off Randy this time around, but apparently they forgot that Scream wasn’t the first series to kill off a survivor in the sequel. Still, Scream 2 made money, although we wouldn’t see Scream 3 until 2000. There were a number of factors for this gap between entries, one of them being the tragic shooting at Columbine in 1999, which, not surprisingly, made studios think twice before giving horror films the greenlight. Another factor was Williamson had gone on to other projects, and Ehren Kruger was brought in as screenwriter.

Alas, Scream 3 proved an even bigger disappointment than its immediate predecessor, because it just puts out the same, lame narrative. The surviving cast (including Jamie Kennedy, whose Randy is tossed in via a videotaped message for no reason) goes through the motions, this time with (you guessed it) trilogies being constantly referenced.

As it turns out, the killer this time turns out to be Sidney’s long lost brother (played by former Mr. Jennifer Garner, Scott Foley), who’s a down-on-his-luck film director. Poor girl; if it’s not her boyfriend trying to kill her, it’s the brother the screenwriters pulled out of their asses. This film, however, does attempt to suggest that Sidney herself is the guilty party this time around. Indeed, many critics thought such a move would make things a bit more interesting. However, to quote Sidney at this film’s climax: “Christ, I’ve heard all this shit before!”

Scream 3 was the least successful entry in the series up to that point, which is why we didn’t see the next entry until 11 years later. During that time, studios were giving more and more remakes/reboots the go-ahead. This wasn’t just confined to classic scare-fests such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, but to non-horror franchises such as Batman, James Bond, and Star Trek.

So it’s not surprising that when Scream 4 eventually cursed cinemas with its presence, the story’s emphasis was on remakes and reboots. We see new characters in the same high school as Sidney and her ill-fated friends talking about how they grew up with the horror they had to live through, while the killer here asks them about originals versus remakes.

This time, Sidney returns to Haddonfield, er, Woodsboro to promote her new self-help book, which focuses on how she was able to get her life back together after the three killing sprees she went through. Oh, and her return coincides with the town’s anniversary of the killing spree (complete with Ghostface masks adorning the lampposts). At least when Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm went back into the dinos’ den in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, it was for the noble purpose of rescuing Julianne Moore. Here, however, Sidney is returning to her hometown in hopes of profiting from her past nightmarish experiences, experiences which claimed the lives of her mother, friends, and the brother she knew for all of five minutes.

Not that Woodsboro itself has had it any better. For instance, Dewey is now the sheriff (at least both Han Solo and Lando Calrissian proved they had the chops to lead troops into battle when they became generals). Gale is now his wife, and she’s pissed because her journalism career (if you want to call it that) is all but dead, and Dewey’s deputy Judy (Agony Booth repeat offender Marley Shelton) has eyes for him.

Like Scream 3, there’s a bit of effort to suggest that Sidney is the killer, but once again, that suggestion doesn’t go very far in favor of the same old shtick (complete with pointless cameos from Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell).

I would go into how this entry ends, but frankly, it’s every bit as dumb, if not more so, as the previous two films, and its low box office take reflected that sentiment. In fact, the only reason I bothered to sit through Scream 4 at all was to write this article.

Scream itself was definitely entertaining, despite the moments I mentioned earlier. Alas, all three of its sequels basically took said moments and amplified them. Hence, by Scream 3, all the characters were hard to root for because, due to the self-referential nature of this series, they only talked via sarcastic remarks and pop culture references, just like the characters in Friends.

Whether Cox’s presence was a coincidence or not, the Scream series became less of a scare-fest as it went on, and more like Friends with murders sprinkled in. But even that may not have necessarily been a bad thing, had Ross and Chandler been among the victims.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Agony Booth review: The Fly (1986)

A number of my Agony Booth articles have made reference to The Fly, so I thought my latest one for the site should be one celebrating its 30th anniversary.
As some of you may have noticed, a number of the articles I’ve had the pleasure of writing for this site have referenced The Fly, specifically David Cronenberg’s version from 1986. As it turns out, this year marks the 30th anniversary of that film, so I decided to write an article celebrating it.

The Fly
is a remake of the beloved 1958 movie of the same name starring Vincent Price. That film in turn was an adaptation of a short story by George Langelaan, which was published the previous year. Cronenberg’s version came out the same year as fellow gems Aliens, Labyrinth, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and actually managed to be superior to its ‘50s predecessor. This is because it drastically toned down the tongue-in-cheek elements seen in the earlier version.

The first scene features Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) at a gathering for his employer, Bartok Industries, where he immediately becomes smitten with Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). He persuades her to come with him to his home/laboratory, where he shows her his invention, which he’s calling “telepods”. These devices basically do the Star Trek trick of beaming things from one place to another. Alas, Seth’s fascination with Veronica blinds him to the fact that she’s a journalist who, following a demonstration of the machines, excitedly (and to Seth’s chagrin) leaves in order to give the story of this breakthrough to her editor/former flame Stathis Borans (John Getz).

As it turns out, Borans couldn’t care less about Seth’s invention, since all the proof Veronica gives him is her taped conversation with Seth, and sadly, cell phone cameras are still decades away. Naturally, this comes as a huge relief to Seth, who tails Veronica to Borans’s office and offers her a proposition: write a book about the progression of the telepods, which will conclude with Seth teleporting himself.

But first, Seth reveals to Veronica that there’s one issue with the telepods that must be addressed: they can only successfully transport inanimate objects. A short time later, the duo is attempting to teleport a baboon... without success, as the poor thing is turned inside out.

Seth’s frustration leads to a heart-to-heart with Veronica, which then leads to them beginning a romance. Unlike many other movie romances, this one actually serves the story. For instance, the sweet nothings Veronica whispers to Seth inspire him on how to reprogram the telepods to not harm any more living things.

At the same time, Veronica tells Borans to piss off when he angrily reveals that he followed her to Seth’s. Yeah, stalking your ex is a surefire way to get her back, pal.

Seth and Veronica’s next attempt to teleport a baboon ends up giving them reason to break out the champagne. And this moment is one reason why this film is better than the original. In the original, the title character (played by David Hedison) is so excited by the success of his work that he immediately tries it on himself. Seth, however, rightly decides that the next step is to test the baboon to confirm that it’s fine.

In the meantime, the lovebirds plan to spend some time together. But those plans are temporarily halted when Veronica finds a threat sent from Borans to Seth, in the guise of a potential cover story which reveals the telepods. To Seth’s dismay, Veronica quickly drives off to confront Borans. Although he’s a jackass, Borans tells Veronica that he’ll keep his mouth shut as long as she remains in his life, at least on a professional level.

However, Seth misinterprets Veronica’s actions in a less than flattering light, and filled with champagne, he pours his heart out to the baboon before deciding that prudency can fuck off and he hops into the telepod himself. Alas, Seth’s drunken state prevents him from noticing the housefly that finds its way into the telepod along with him. But the teleportation is apparently successful.

After Veronica returns and she and Seth make up, he begins to experience the aftereffects of his experience by showing off his improved physicality. Other side effects include sexual potency and an insatiable appetite for sugar. Seth begins to think that he was somehow improved by the teleportation process.

But the bad news begins to come when, after another sex romp, Veronica finds strange hairs on Seth’s back. He then wants Veronica to be teleported so they can both be super-strong, and become “the dynamic duo”, as he puts it. When she refuses, he lashes out at her and darts off to find a new sex partner.

He finds one at a nearby bar, whom he brings home after giving her boyfriend a compound fracture during an arm wrestling match. Seth impresses her with the telepods before they get to the quick sex. The next morning, however, she has the same reaction to Seth’s offer of teleporting as Veronica did. Fortunately for her, Veronica appears and tells her she’s right to be scared. After Seth’s one night stand departs, Veronica tells him that he’s changing, and that the hairs on his back are likely insect hairs.

Seth doesn’t listen and throws her out. But he goes into his bathroom and realizes that he’s losing his fingernails. He then goes to his computer and looks up his first teleportation. The records inform him that a fly was in the pod with him, and the computer fused the two occupants on a “molecular-genetic level”.

Weeks later, Seth reaches out to Veronica again. She arrives to see him in a deteriorating state as he tells her what happened during that first teleportation. She’s also horrified to see that, just like a fly, he has to vomit acid on his food in order to liquefy it before consuming it. And if all that’s not bad enough, his ear falls off in front of her. But in a truly touching moment, Veronica embraces him as he asks for help.

She reveals this to Borans, who says she should stay away from Seth, as his condition could become an epidemic (the AIDS virus was making headlines at the time, which makes the movie’s constant references to the disease somewhat timely). But Borans does ask Veronica to record Seth on camera so he can see for himself.

Seth is all too happy to oblige on her next visit, when he’s seen delightedly climbing up walls and the ceiling, with his attitude towards his “disease” now a bit more open-minded. To that end, Seth states he’s now becoming “Brundlefly”, and insists that Veronica videotape him eating. Thankfully, we’re not shown his acid-vomit trick again; Borans’s look of disgust at watching the tape is all that’s needed.

But something more horrifying is revealed at that same moment, when Veronica tells Borans that she’s pregnant. We next see them at a hospital, where Veronica finds herself on a bed apparently giving birth to a huge maggot. Fortunately for her, it was just a dream, but this leads to her going to Seth again.

It turns out Seth is working on a project which could remove all his fly genes. When Veronica sees him in his even more deteriorated form, she’s unable to tell him she’s pregnant. Seth, however, painfully rambles on about how insects don’t have politics, and how he’d like to be the first insect politician before telling her that he’s losing his humanity. He tells her to leave so he won’t hurt her.

Veronica tearfully goes to her car and demands that Borans take her to get an abortion. But Seth overhears this and abducts her from the clinic before the abortion can take place. He then begs her to keep the baby, saying it could be all that’s left of the real him, a request she tearfully refuses.

Borans, with shotgun in hand, follows them to Seth’s place, where he discovers Seth’s plans to fuse himself, Veronica, and their unborn baby in one gruesome body. Seth then leaps out and uses his acid-vomit on Borans’s hand and foot before a terrified Veronica tears off his jaw, triggering another gruesome transformation.

She’s then tossed into one telepod while Brundlefly goes into the other. But Borans has enough strength to use his shotgun to disconnect the pod holding Veronica. This leads to Brundlefly smashing his way out of his pod just as the sequence is initiated.

In the only moment of the movie that I wasn’t initially clear on, Brundlefly is teleported along with a portion of the telepod he was in (I was confused as to why the computer elected to just take a chunk of the pod itself after Veronica’s pod was detached). The wounded Borans gets Veronica out of her pod just as Brundlefly and the pod are reintegrated in the third telepod (the original prototype).

The horrifically fused telepod-Brundlefly painfully crawls to Veronica, and silently tells her to ends his suffering with the shotgun, which she tearfully does.

The ending is another reason this film is better than the one it’s a remake of. The title character of that film ends up swapping heads and an arm with a fly. This leads to an ending where the Vincent Price character encounters him shrieking “help me” as a spider is about to eat him. Price would later admit that the sight kept giving him the giggles, and many audiences agreed with that sentiment. But when Seth asks Veronica to end his pain, laughter is the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Another plus is Borans. In any other movie, his jackassery would have meant an automatic death sentence. However, Cronenberg, who co-wrote this movie’s screenplay with Charles Edward Pogue, makes sure that Borans becomes sympathetic by having him actually put his life on the line for Veronica, losing appendages for his trouble. Like Miguel Ferrer in the following year’s Robocop, Getz plays a jerk who’s not as close-minded as you initially think.

This is to take nothing away from the two leads, though. Both of them are instantly likeable and their romance (which was no doubt helped by the fact that Goldblum and Davis were real life partners at the time) is at the top of whatever list you’ll find Anakin/Padme at the bottom of.

Goldblum in particular had the unenviable task of pulling off pathos under what looks like a ton of latex. I’d say this performance, along with his later one as a similar but more fortunate scientist in the equally classic Jurassic Park, has become for all intents and purposes Goldblum’s acting legacy.

The makeup itself was designed by Stephan Dupuis and Chris Walas, who would deservedly win Oscars for their work here. Walas would go on to direct the watchable but routine sequel The Fly II starring Eric Stoltz and Daphne Zuniga, with Getz reprising his role as Stathis Borans, while Davis’s character is (briefly) played by another actress and Goldblum only appears via deleted footage from this movie.

For Cronenberg, the success of The Fly became something of a double-edged sword. He had previously scored with beloved cult movies Scanners and Videodrome, but it was The Dead Zone, adapted from the Stephen King book of the same name, that prompted Hollywood to take notice of him. Indeed, both The Dead Zone and The Fly share many themes. But this back-to-back success led many people to classify him as a horror director. For instance, the trailer for his follow-up movie Dead Ringers reuses Howard Shore’s dramatic Fly score, even though the movie is more of a psychological study than a horror film.

But the brilliance of this movie can’t be denied, and another aspect of the movie that contributes to that is the fact that (the first baboon notwithstanding) the only person who actually dies in this movie is the title character. Sure, Borans and also Seth’s arm-wrestling adversary get mangled badly, but unlike a movie like Hollow Man, there are no sequences of people getting killed to remind us this is a scary movie. Indeed, much of the horror of this movie centers on Seth, having voluntarily locked himself in his home, studying himself as he slowly and horribly disintegrates into something inhuman.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Interview with Roxann Dawson

This weekend, I had the pleasure of chatting with Roxann Dawson, who is best known for playing B'Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager.

1. Roxann, you are obviously known and loved for playing B'Elanna Torres on Voyager. What would you say is your favorite moment on that show?
-Oh wow! There are quite a few, on and off the screen, mainly off the screen when we played practical jokes on each other . I thought the tumultuous relationship between B’Elanna and Paris had a lot of special moments.

2. Would you be open to playing B'Elanna again or returning to Star Trek again?
-Probably not as an actor, I can’t imagine that over 10 years later(laughs). But I think the franchise itself is important in that it has a unique world view that hasn’t grown old. I would love to return to the franchise.

3. Of the non-B'Elanna roles you've played, is there one that is your favorite?
-On stage, I was most proud of playing Diana Morales in the Broadway production A Chorus Line, which was my first acting job out of college. And on TV, B’Elanna.

4. What attracted you to acting?
-Just being born (laughs). There was nobody in my family in the arts but I was directing and acting plays in my living room. It’s a part of me that’s been there ever since I can remember.

5. Are there any actors, actresses or directors you would like to work with?
-There are so many wonderful actors and directors in general. I did have a chance to work with Robert De Niro in Guilty By Suspicion, which was exciting. I just think there are so many up and coming actors. I just enjoy every job I’m in to discover the new talent.

6.You've also directed a couple of episodes of Voyager and sat in the director's chair for other series, including the new series Mercy Street. Is there a specific directorial assignment that stands out for you?
-Mercy Street because I did the pilot. I was able to really mold it and have a strong creative voice in how it came out. That is the closest to my heart because I was able to be part of that from the beginning.

7. In addition, you've written plays as well as co-wrote the Tenebrea trilogy of books. Are there any specific authors who have inspired you?
-I can’t say. I’ve gone through so many stages. My favorite non-fiction book is Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, which I’ve reread many times. In terms of fiction, The Unbearable Likeness of Being is one of my favorite books and very inspiring.

8. You also have acted on stage quite a bit. How does that differ from acting on TV or the big screen?
-I guess it would be the ability to recreate something for 8 shows a week in front of a live audience. You don’t have a chance for take 2. So each performance is a unique experience with a unique audience. Actors love theater so much because, there, they have the most control over how the work turns out. It’s the most amazing connection acting in front of a live audience.

9. Do you have a preference between acting, writing or directing?
-I’ll always love acting. I love the art of acting and respect actors to take the discipline seriously. I studied under Uta Hagen and her book Respect for Acting is something all actors should read. Directing is what I like to do now. I’ve always been a bit of a control freak (laughs) and I love working with actors and having an active part in putting something together.

10. What future acting, directing or writing endeavors do you have planned?
-I’m doing a show called Six for the History Channel about Navy Seals. It’s a wonderful show I’ll be doing in March.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Agony Booth review: Wolf (1994)

My latest review for the Agony Booth looks at a film that had so much going for it but ended up falling flat.
Two years after Columbia disappointed us with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the same studio would do so again with Wolf. Both films had Oscar-winning directors at the helm, telling classic stories which had lain dormant for a while.

However, Wolf deserves a bit more leeway than Coppola’s movie, because its director, the late, great Mike Nichols, told people upfront that his werewolf movie would be different than previous ones. So while the end result could have been better, the movie does have interesting moments which make this movie, if nothing else, a noble failure.

Our story begins with book publisher Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) driving home one snowy night in Vermont. This storm causes him to hit a wolf, prompting Will to pull over. However, the animal suddenly comes back to life and bites Will’s hand before running off. Will then sees an entire pack of wolves staring at him from the woods, and so he returns to his car and resumes his journey.

We then get an effective, funny bit in which we see the wolf in a bush growling before those growls segue into Will gargling mouthwash in his bathroom the next morning. He explains to his wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan) how desperate things are at his job before noticing that hair is growing around the wound on his bitten hand. Sure enough, Will soon finds himself demoted from his cushy editor-in-chief position at a publishing house following a takeover by business tycoon Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer).

Will’s colleagues Roy MacAllister (David Hyde Pierce) and Stewart Swinton (James Spader) are in angst over the situation. However, Will begins to doubt Stewart’s sincerity when, later at a business dinner, he learns that Alden offered him Will’s position.

At the same time, Will also begins to experience an increase in his hearing and visual abilities, as well as, of course, his sexual prowess (no doubt helped by the fact that he’s now literally sleeping all day). Unfortunately, this doesn’t impress Charlotte, as Will sniffs her clothing one night, which leads to him going across town to Stewart’s place where, after warding him off with a bite to the hand, he finds Charlotte in Stewart’s bedroom.

Despite the fact that his marriage is now in ruins, Will’s mysterious new abilities begin to give him more self-confidence. He basically tells Alden to piss off when the latter offers him a less-than-ideal position in Eastern Europe.

To add insult to injury, Will befriends Alden’s rebellious daughter Laura (Michelle Pfieffer). In a very nice, surprising touch, these two don’t hop into bed immediately. They actually have conversations first, and get to know each other better. He eventually tells Laura about his wolf encounter, and while she responds that it could be a gift, considering the benefits, he’s scared that there will be a downside to it all.

Sure enough, just as Will’s relationship with Laura begins to take a sexual turn, that downside begins to show itself when he wakes up during a full moon with the appearance of a wolf. He goes into the nearby woods and hunts down a deer. This is reminiscent of a similar scene in the classic werewolf picture An American Werewolf in London, but nowhere near as disturbing. Will wakes up the next morning next to a stream, covered with blood, with apparently no memory of his recent meal.

Will then visits a doctor (Om Puri) about his condition. The doctor informs him that he’s turning into a wolf—thanks for confirming the obvious, Doc—and gives him an amulet designed to prevent future transformations. The doctor then asks Will to bite him and make him into a werewolf. Will’s look of awkwardness reflects my own at this point. So I guess he should be thankful it wasn’t an STD that Will went to this guy about. Thankfully, Will leaves without indulging this fellow.

Next, we get to the movie’s best moment, when Will is walking home and encounters muggers. He calmly asks them how much they want from him before going werewolf on them. That’ll teach them to try to mug the Joker.

The werewolf curse is making its mark on Will big time by now. At the publishing house, he tells Stewart to figuratively piss off before literally pissing on his shoes. This leads to Will’s obvious line, “I’m just marking my territory.”

But as Will cleans up, he’s freaked out when he discovers fingers from one of his would-be muggers in his pocket. More chaos heads Will’s way when, back at his apartment, he and Laura are informed by a police inspector (Richard Jenkins) that his wife Charlotte has been murdered. When Will asks how it happened, he’s told her throat was torn out.

Stewart has also learned of Charlotte’s death, and attempts to frame Will for the murder by going to the police and telling them about the affair. Laura also goes to talk to the police, but changes her mind after her run in with Stewart, who’s showing signs of wolfism himself, while he also makes it painfully clear that he’d like to get into her pants.

Laura makes plans to leave the country with Will. They go to her dad’s estate, where Will locks himself in a barn wearing the amulet. However, Stewart, who’s becoming a werewolf himself thanks to the bite that Will gave him when he discovered him with Charlotte, tracks them down, kills the two guards at the estate, and begins to assault Laura.

Will then tosses aside his amulet so he can become a wolf in order to fight Stewart. That’s right; the werewolf of our movie is now acting like Superman to save his love. I guess Will isn’t concerned with the possibility that he may kill Laura once he gets his werewolf groove on. But this fight becomes anticlimactic, as Laura manages to be the one to shoot Stewart to death. Will then briefly looks at her before running off into the night.

After the police arrive, Laura begins to show signs of lycanthropy herself, when she smells the vodka on the inspector’s breath. She informs the police and her father that she doesn’t know where Will is, nor does she care.

The movie’s final shot is of Laura’s eyes becoming more wolf-like as a wolf who is (presumably) Will is heard howling in the distance. That must have been some hot, heavy sex they had. Too bad we couldn’t have seen it, a la The Howling.

So the ending is basically a tease that Laura will soon be a wolf herself, and I guess she’ll join Will, have wolf pups with him, and live happily ever after? I’m all for subtlety in the endings of movies, but considering that it was Laura, and not Will, who killed the bad guy, I was hoping for a resolution that was a bit more lively.

The moments with Will becoming accustomed to his emerging abilities are fun to watch. However, Nichols and company seemed so concerned with adding these kinds of scenes that they neglected to shake things up by adding some scares. One film that perfectly balances curiosity with scares is The Fly. In that film, we see Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle becoming initially astonished with his new physical abilities. Slowly but surely, however, he and the audience become aware of the more horrific angles of what he has now become. Wolf simply decides to focus exclusively on what’s awesome about being a werewolf.

The cast is fine, if a bit too low-key, with the exception of Spader, who is appropriately slimy, but goes way over the top once he starts his werewolf transformation. It’s as if the movie was hammering into our skulls who the real monster of this movie should be (there’s even a suggestion that he’s the one who murdered Charlotte), even though Spader isn’t even on the damn poster.

Plummer sounds rather bored in some scenes, but then again, maybe he thought this film was a step down after playing a general who quoted Shakespeare effortlessly and had a Bird of Prey that could fire while cloaked.

Pfeiffer, who previously worked with Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick, is sassy, but in some cases too much so. However, her character really didn’t add much to the overall film, making her basically the token love interest.

Regarding the movie’s star, Wolf accomplishes what I previously thought was impossible: it actually features Jack being restrained. I don’t want to say he was bad in this, but while he looks like he’s enjoying wearing the werewolf makeup, at no time in the movie does he either scare us or evoke our pity the way the protagonists of previous werewolf movies did. This came as a complete surprise to me considering how Jack scared us in The Shining and Batman (the one with the leading lady so wimpy she makes Willie Scott look like Xena), or the way he made us sympathize with him in Easy Rider and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Heck, Jack displayed more urgency in The Terror than he does here.

I honestly think this film is to Mike Nichols’s career what 1941 is to Steven Spielberg’s. Both movies had stellar casts, accomplished directors, and the best production values you could ask for. However, Spielberg’s film lacked the one thing all comedies need in order to be good: laughs. Likewise, Wolf lacks the one thing all horror movies need in order to be good: scares. Happily, both directors would bounce back with their respective next films; Spielberg with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Nichols with The Birdcage.

As simply a movie, Wolf has some interesting moments, but doesn’t match The Wolf Man (the good one, not the one with Benecio Del Toro), or the aforementioned Howling or American Werewolf in London. However, it has moments that make it less painful to watch than, say, Cursed, or An American Werewolf in Paris. And if that isn’t damning something with faint praise, then I don’t know what is.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Thriller (1960-1962)

"Mark my words, this is a thriller!"
-Boris Karloff.

Perhaps the two most famous anthology series are The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchock Presents.

But, the same year Universal released Psycho, that same studio began airing an anthology series that stands proudly beside those two classics.

Karloff bring his great class and dignity to the proceedings, of course. Happily, the episodes themselves, which are a mixture of horror and (naturally) thriller stories, are every bit as great.

One of the best is actually the first episode, "The Twisted Image." That story centers on a business executive (Leslie Nielsen) who has to contend with a woman who desires him and a man who wants to be him.

The stories came from the pens of such great artists as Robert Hardy Andrews as well as Psycho author Robert Bloch. Watching this great series today also allows us to see how the beginnings of some who are famous now, such as William Shatner, Mary Tyler Moore and Robert Vaughn.

In one sense, both Psycho and Thriller came at an interesting time. In 1960, Kennedy was just beginning his run for the White House, the Beatles were only just starting to perform in clubs in their native Liverpool and the only people who knew where Vietnam was were geography majors.

Hitchcock's film, of course, pushed the envelope big time in terms of violence and even sexuality on screen. This show, however, could be just as disturbing. Having Karloff, who was already immortalized as a horror legend by 1960, host (and occasionally act in) the series was the finishing touch, as it gave the public a familiar face which could still surprise and (yes!) thrill!